Ad Astra tells the thrilling story of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a man on a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe. We spoke with Colorist Greg Fisher about working with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, ASC and using Blackmagic Design's DaVinci Resolve to achieve the film's unique look.
ProductionHUB: Thanks for speaking with us about the making of Ad Astra — we’re excited to see this new sci-fi epic from director James Gray and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, ASC. We understand you did the color grade, first at Company 3, where you normally work, and then at EFilm in Hollywood and that you work in Resolve. What was workflow like for you on this movie?
Greg Fisher: I started working with Hoyte before production started. We created a LUT in Resolve that would be used as the basis for the dailies grades. It was designed to essentially preserve the characteristics of film negative that James and Hoyte love. It wasn’t technically a film emulation LUT because it had room for brighter whites and darker blacks than you’d likely be able to manage using a complete photochemical finishing process, ending up with a print. It’s only a small portion of the film that makes use of that additional range but it was important to build it in from the start.
ProductionHUB: What formats were used? And can you talk about doing color on a Hoyte Van Hoytema film? He’s certainly one of the modern masters of motion picture photography.
Greg Fisher: Ad Astra was primarily shot on film negative, mostly 2-perf format and some 4-perf. Hoyte is one of the leading cinematographers working today. His lighting is always very creative. It’s an honor to be part of any project he works on.
ProductionHUB: Was the “look” and color palette clearly outlined before post— or more of a process of finding it during post and color sessions?
Greg Fisher: There was a very considered approach to color from the start and it evolved somewhat as the story and production progressed. We did make tonal shifts from the original thoughts, but nothing too extreme. The lighting is so strong that there were many different great possibilities without too much DI work.
The idea of shooting on film, especially in 2-perf format with pronounced grain, was very much part of the look that was baked in.
This was not supposed to look like a shiny, slick kind of sci-fi movie. The space travel depicted is pushing the spaceflight technology to the edge of what’s possible. They are experimental vehicles, rather than slick and polished established products. The feeling the filmmakers were after was much closer to what we see in footage of the Apollo missions and the use of film and the ever-present grain was always a key element of the look.
ProductionHUB: How did VFX and color teams work together before, during production and in post to achieve artistic goals?
Greg Fisher: We had VFX reviews as the many effects shots took shape. The artists and compositors did wonderful work and delivered completed shots that we then dropped into the color timeline for final grading. Since the VFX companies weren’t working with a final grade, which will always have some effect on how the various elements in a shot come together, we did use secondary tools to help fine-tune effects elements to ensure they sat perfectly within the live action elements.
This was also true for the grain. The effects elements would come in with layers of grain added on top but sometimes we needed to isolate portions of the frame and either re-grain or de-grain them just to make sure the grain in the final shots all looked organic.
ProductionHUB: How long did color take on this elaborate film?
Greg Fisher: It’s always hard to say. The actual grade took place roughly over a six-week period but there’s a lot that goes into that, starting with building the show LUT and then the dailies, which were done at EC3 (the dailies operation shared by Company 3 and EFILM) by Matt Wallach, who communicated constantly with Hoyte and refined the look beyond the parameters of the LUT.
As with almost all films of this size and scope, there was quite a bit of DI time dealing with VFX as they spotted into the final grade.
ProductionHUB: Can you talk about using different features of Resolve — the latest features and tools that enabled your team to achieve what it did?
Greg Fisher: This really wasn’t a project for a lot of the latest features and tools. The whole approach was based on some very traditional "color timing" tools, which is a way I’m very comfortable working. I like to start out using the printer light tools to get things as close to where we want to take them as possible. I’ll use keys, windows, plugins as necessary. We had a great deal of control when de-graining and re-graining which is something the resolve can do well.
ProductionHUB: Looking back, how did you best advance your skill-set over the years — from early days up to today’s large scale sci-fi film?
Greg Fisher: I feel like I approach every job as I always have. It is a profession, any job you work on deserves everything you have to offer it regardless of its status or scale.
Over the years you pick up more as it is a job in which you are constantly learning, so I think I have more to offer now than in my early days as a colorist.
ProductionHUB: Some reviews are out that this will be a fascinating science-fiction journey a la Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Care to comment on the picture?
Greg Fisher: Those are certainly films much appreciated by James, Hoyte and me. There are parallels with various tonal elements of many things, I think this is in the nature of creating anything. Perhaps the fact they are all contemplative films set in space is why they are often mentioned.
ProductionHUB: Any recommendations for emerging colorists?
Greg Fisher: Watch films, go to galleries, spend as much time as you can outside, exercise, learn what you can about photography, keep an open mind and work hard.
View the trailer: